I'm assuming the idiom ‘such-and-such is not all that’ is one with which you are familiar. What I like about it is the way it steers its course between harsher dismissal or snark on the one hand, and undercommitted neutrality on the other. I'm not suggesting that Cyberpunk was, as it were, actively bad, deplorable, anything like that. There's some Cyberpunk I like a great deal. But I am, I suppose, suggesting that it wasn't quite as cool, or as signficant, or as core to the larger narrative of science fiction's development, as is sometimes claimed.
These thoughts aren't exactly pursuant to the fact that William Gibson has a new novel out, although they are perhaps provoked in part by the excitement lots of people are performing on social media at the fact that William Gibson has a new novel out. I haven't read Agency yet. I will, although I wasn't especially bowled-over by The Peripheral (2014), to which it is, it seems, a kind-of sequel. Still, the level of online excitement suggests that plenty people are still invested in Cyberpunk as a mode. It hasn't gone away. Neuromancer was 1984, and 1984 was a long time ago now, but it can't be denied the movement still has acolytes. People are still attentive to, and in many cases prepared to put lots of money behind, it. The Netflix adaptation of Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon, one of the most expensive TV series ever made, has been commissioned for a second series. CD Projekt have a team of 500 people working round the clock readying the game Cyberpunk 2077 for its September release (see Keanu, above). The gamble here is: cyberpunk is still cool. Maybe the gamble will pay off.
I wonder. There certainly was a moment, at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, when it looked as though Cyberpunk was coming true, and that in turn cast a certain neon glamour back upon Gibson's predictive and social-diagnostic talents. But, actually, Cyberpunk didn't come true. So it goes. There are two main criteria against which Gibson's nostradamusing might be measured: on the one hand there are the props and tech of his novel (and he was, it's true, the first to use the term ‘cyberspace’ in print); on the other is the new economic logic underpinning all that surface Blade Runnery, Matrix-y aesthetics and vibe. For the first of these, the salient is not that Gibson ‘saw that computers were going to be, like, really important in the future’, or anything so vague (lots of people saw that, long before Neuromancer). The salient was that the Gibsonian Matrix, and its many imitations in later SF, were to be immersive, their virtual reality ‘a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts’. This has not come to pass, despite vast sums of money having been spaffed on research for VR helmets etc. We remain absurdly, even ludicrously happy with screens mediating our cyberexperience, just as we were happy with (and continue to be happy with) screens mediating our televisual and cinematic experience.
The one genuinely revolutionary change of the last thirty years is one Gibson simply didn't foresee: phones. So far from abandoning our screens for a wholly immersive VR cyberpunkness we cling to our screens. We love our screens so much we want to take them everywhere with us. Moore's Law has been harnessed, mostly, to one great task: making our computers and screens small enough and wifi-connected enough to be able to take them everywhere with us. We love our screens so much that it even turns out we're only happy watching our big screens if we also have our small screens with us. What does the Matrix actually look like? Not ‘lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data, like city lights, receding’, but this:
Cyberspace turned out to be recursive, not linearly urban-topographic.
Neuromancer was wrong about its more fundamental things, too, I think. Its world is one in which (a) state power has effectively withered away with everything now being run by corporations, and (b) as a consequence of this things have defaulted to dystopian desocialiation, urban wildernesses, predatory violence, unregulated tech, organised crime and a general homo hominibus lupus vibe. Cyberpunk's imagined world is also decoupled from the traditional temporal structures of our social habitus (the city never sleeps, the action largely happens at night). The implication here is that it is these new cybertechnologies that have brought about the world's Hobbesification; that it's a case quite specifically of cyberhomo homini lupus. But this is not where we are. Folk sometimes talk as if it is, but it's not. Facebook, Google, Apple and Disney are huge corporations, no question, and make obscene amounts of money; but they haven't taken over actual governance. On the contrary, the nation state is as strong as it's ever been (arguably, with Brexit and the election in so many territories of aggressively tribalist-nationalist quasi-fascist leaders, it's stronger than it's been for a while). And moreover it seems to me a moot question whether Google, Facebook and Apple are huger, as corporations, than were (say) the Ford Motor Company or BP a century ago. We forget: not only did Ford generate eye-popping profits throughout the 1920s, he even bought up a five-thousand-square-mile chunk of Brazil in order to establish his own Fordlândia quasi-country. That came to nothing, of course, but actually that's my point. Big corporations have aggressively pursued myriad ways of maximising their profits, and it transpires taking over the business of national and international governance is not one of those. Which, if you think about it for thirty seconds, makes sense, actually.
But my point is not really to twit Gibson as a prophet. It is to suggest that Cyberpunk, though often entertaining and thought-provoking, and though it once was (but, I think, no longer is) cool, wasn't actually all that. Its kudos is notional rather than actual. Some of that derives from the fact that it used to be cool back when a lot of middle-aged SF fans were young. I grew up in the 1970s and early 80s reading SF promiscuously, and back then, although there wasn't anything so interconnected or immediate as today's congeries of plugged-in fandoms, there was a kind of consensus that ‘proper’ SF was Golden Age-y, hard-ish, masculine, can-do. That was because middle-aged SF fans of the 1970s and 80s had grown-up reading SF in the 1940s and 50s. It's the way of things, and nor do I absolve myself. I retain within me, if I'm honest, a sense that ‘proper’ SF is New-Wave-y: Le Guin and Delany, Phil Dick and Brian Aldiss and Lem. Joanna Russ and Chris Priest. Ian Wat- and M John Harri-, son. It's certainly what I tend to write. Give me more by way of Moorcock, cock, and less of this video-games-in-novel-form gubbins, thank you very much. Give me Leguinity or give me death! But folk a decade or so younger than me are also middle-aged now, and they look back to the stuff that was cool in the 80s and early 90s, and that was cyberpunk.
Having written that, I now look at it and think: no, it's too facile an explanation. I'm actually sidling-up to a different kind of argument, along the lines of: critics and fans embraced Cyberpunk in the 1980s and 1990s because they thought it was the wave of the future. So, one history of the mode goes like this: science fiction begins towards the end of the nineteenth-century, with Verne and Wells, because the nineteenth-century saw such rapid and socially disorienting advances in industry and technology. SF is a way of apprehending this pace and many of the specifics of such change. It is the literature of industrial and technological change, because it does what no other kind of literature can, and extrapolates change as such into the future, bodying forth textually the many ways, utopian or dystopian, in which industrial and technological advances are liable to impact human existence.
OK: I don't, as it happens, buy that argument. But perhaps you do, and perhaps you're right and I'm wrong. Say, then, that people looked around them in the 1980s and 1990s and said: ‘if the main driver of change over the last 150 years has been primarily industrial, has manifested in manufacturing and technological advances, then the main driver of coming change will be advances in information storage and processing, in computers and interconnectivity, and therefore the most relevant and important science fiction will no longer be about gigantic spaceships or world-destroying guns, but about computers and information. If Verne's imagined big machines were the wave of the 1860s' future, then Gibson's Neuromancer is the wave of our future.’
I run the rusk of strawmanning, I know. So let me say, instead: I don't think SF begins with Verne and Wells. There's plenty of stuff prior to them that we can only avoid calling SF by engaging in semantic contortions: trips to the moon and planets, crazy speculative technology, futurology and so on. My argument is that SF first distils into something recognisable as SF around the time of the Protestant Reformation. My thesis nutshell is: ‘fantasy’ is the default mode of human storytelling (people by and large like a bit of magic, or surrealism, or transcendence, in their tales) from which something like ‘literary Realism’ is an 18th-19th-century aberration. Also: the difference between Fantasy and SF is that the former extends beyond mimesis through novums predicated on magic, where the latter does so through novums predicated on science, or pseudo-science. In my Palgrave History I argue that this distinction was connected with the European cultural revolution of the Reformation, in which Catholicism insisted on the durability of its magical worldview where Protestantism took a step away from the whole transubstantiation/holy-relics/pilgrimages/miracles-and-saints side of things into a more austere, less enchanted form of faith. This disenchantment has been experienced by many as a painful thing, such that a form of literature that offers to restore enchantment, as much Fantasy does, will always find an appreciative audience. It's not that SF has turned its back on enchantment, of course: it's just that the characteristic SFnal mode of it, ‘sense of wonder’, in essence a high-tech, galactic-scale revisioning of the old Burkean or Kantian sublime, tends to be future-oriented, materialist and individualist, where High Fantasy, influenced heavily by that great Catholic writer Tolkien, tends to be past-oriented, quasi-religious and communitarian. But in neither case does your average Joe, Joanna or Jenderneutral SF Fan particularly care about the new railway networks, new modes of factory production, or even new ways of launching satellites into orbit. The appeal is techno-numinous, not socio-economic.
From this perspective, the thing that the implicit prophetic excitement of 1980s/90s Cyberpunk got, as it were, ‘wrong’ had less to do with its particular props and toys, or its thrillingly grimdark dystopian urbanism (a conceptual playground in which you, yes you, get to be the badass and shake to earth like dew all those Civilisation and Its Discontents chains). What it got wrong was how un-numinous, how unsomatic and therefore unerotic, actual cyberspace was actually to become. Yes I know 99% of the world's porn is now delivered via the internet. That doesn't seem to me to contradict what I say about the uneroticism of our new screen-mediated Being-in-the-world. Porn is desomaticised sex, and whatever functional role it plays in 21st-century life, for better or worse, it indexes a disjunction between representation and actual sexual connection. This really doesn't strike me as a controversial thing to say, actually. Anyway: what Neuromancer promised, excitingly (for 1984), was a kind of techno-communion, a total immersion, a reconfiguration of existence as such. This did not come to pass. There's a reason why the sub-genre settled quickly into a variety of sex-n-violence poses: nudity and blood-spurting from bullet-riddled torsos (and how readily that aesthetic aligns with a set of right-wing, libertarian and techbro ideological priors, alas).
There's an interesting essay by Eric Korn from 1993, written at exactly the moment the more outré predictions of first-wave Cyberpunk were tripping over their feet of clay. In that year Korn visited a Virtual Reality Centre, located near Piccadilly Circus, where punters could roam around rudimentary VR landscapes (‘William Gibson’s man,’ Korn complains, ‘is coupled to the computer, brain to brain, while we had to make do with lumpy goggles, like a high-tech condemned man’s bandage over the eyes’). His experiences are disappointing; he feels nothing but awkward: ‘I find a new and more disabling clumsiness as I wave my unfamiliar limbs. I am not Superman but Gregor Samsa. I lumber, I dance wooden-legged, I fall off things: this is Turing’s problem as nightmare.’ What's the problem? Korn finds an explanation in an unlikely text:
I try to cram myself further into the mind of the monster whose body I temporarily inhabit. I realise that identity problems would be still more acute if my helmet delivered a split-screen image, my subjective view and God, the Overhead Monitor’s view, or better yet my view and my opponent’s. In the near-future, we shall see ourselves as others see us, the target and the target’s target, the loved one’s love. I find a description of all this, surprisingly, in Anne Carson’s study of Greek lyric poetry, Eros the Bittersweet:I think this lays its finger on the problem. The excitement of the original Cyberpunk, its beguiling dream, was of a new techo-eros, where actual cyberspace has moved us further away from, not more intimately into, our own and others' bodies. Cyberpunk promised us a shattering, perverse but orgasmic new kind of penetration (those prongs sliding with such resonant force into the docking-ports sunk into the backs of Neo and Trinity's necks in The Matrix, a literal as well as a metaphorical headfuck) when what we have actually gravitated towards is a kind of high-tech cordon sanitaire. A world of intervening screens, not of ports (the sky above which turned out to be, in the end, not the color of television tuned to a dead channel after all: for the cyberrevolution will not be televised). As the reality of cyberculture has not provided the eros, the techno-juissance, promised by Cyberpunk, the genre itself has reverted to more and more sexually explicit and body-penetratingly violence content, a facile sort of compensatory gesture.
Possibilities are projected onto a screen of what is actual and present by means of the poet’s tactic ... That godlike self, never known before, comes into focus and vanishes again in one quick shift of view. As the planes of vision jump, the actual self and the ideal self and the difference between them connect in one triangle momentarily. The connection is eros.And again, with uncanny precision: ‘tactics of imagination ... all aimed at defining one certain edge or difference: an edge between two images that cannot merge into a single focus because they do not derive from the same level of reality – one is actual, one is possible. To know both, keeping the difference visible, is the subterfuge called eros.’ Ludus, jouissance or agape maybe, but there wasn’t a great deal of eros in Piccadilly Circus.
Take away its simulacrum of contemporary relevance, its pretence to devestating insight into our contemporary condition, and what is left of Cyberpunk? Some of the books are well written. Some of the ideas are cool. But without its tacit, tantalising sense of illicit insight into next year's reality, the mode falls back into a set of styles and story-conventions, more or less diverting. Cyberpunk is fine. It's OK. It's just not all that.